Scientists come close to making soybeans resistant to disease

Friday, November 16, 2001

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University researchers say they have taken a major step toward making soybeans resistant to the two diseases that threaten them most.

Researchers recently received a patent for an inexpensive laboratory test that detects genes in the plant that are resistant to Sudden Death Syndrome and soybean cyst nematode, a killer worm, said David Lightfoot, professor of plant and soil sciences at SIU.

The genes then can be used to produce resistant lines, he said.

Illinois -- which grows more soybeans than any other state -- loses about $80 million a year to SDS, an incurable fungus that wipes out soybean crops, a $20 billion industry in the United States. Nationally, growers lose around $400 million a year to the disease, Lightfoot said.

New test $1

Soybean cyst nematode costs growers $200 million a year in Illinois, and $1 billion nationally, he said.

The new technique also could replace "a very difficult and expensive" field test to detect the genes that costs growers $100 each time it is performed, compared to $1 a test using the new technique, Lightfoot said.

"And what could be better than that?" he said.

Besides being more costly, the old tests can detect either SDS or SCN, but not both, as the new technique can, he said. The diseases usually strike at the same time.

The new patent also may be a substantial money earner for SIU when it licenses the technology to private companies, Lightfoot said. The university is talking to four companies about such agreements, which eventually could generate about $1 million a year for SIU over the 20-year life of the patent, he said.

Lightfoot received the patent on Oct. 17 after working on the test for more than a decade. He had applied for the patent twice, most recently in 1997, he said. The wait was not a pleasant one.

"It was a problem particularly for a university professor, who has to publish or be damned," he said.

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